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News | Nov. 6, 2023

Sarah Bernstein: Illuminating the Path of Nursing with Kindness

By Leigh Culbert Steward, WRNMMC, Office of Command Communications

In the corridors of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), a nurse quietly goes about her duties, but the story of her journey is nothing short of extraordinary. Sarah Bernstein, RN, MS, AOCN, stands as a beacon of unwavering dedication and compassionate care for her patients. Her 37-year-long career is a testament to the transformative power of a nurse, and her path to nursing is rooted in a moment of clarity that forever changed the course of her life.

"I was working as a payroll clerk in a large, computerized payroll firm. One of my clients started yelling at me because the computer had taken their final year payroll totals out to the penny and it did not match what they had calculated. Pennies… at that moment, I decided that I needed to be in a role where my efforts would make a difference and arguments would make sense. I started applying to schools that day," Bernstein recollects.

Her resolute determination to make a meaningful impact led her to the world of nursing, where she found her true calling.

Bernstein’s illustrious career has been predominantly marked by her work in oncology, spanning 35 years, during which she has touched countless lives. She's not merely a nurse; she's a specialist, a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Gynecologic Oncology, whose commitment to her patients is awe-inspiring.

But her journey was not without its challenges. Nineteen years ago, she faced a pivotal decision when she left her prior job to take on her current role at WRNMMC. She learned that personal commitment to honesty and one's mission is paramount, even when not everyone shares that belief. She had to navigate this tough terrain and ultimately choose what was most important for her and her practice. Her journey took her to Amman, Jordan, where she was part of a team setting up a new cancer center.

"That experience taught me to question and consider the rationale for everything we do in patient care. It also reaffirmed my belief that there are MANY wonderful people around the world, with the best of intentions," said Bernstein.

Her belief in the power of kindness, empathy, and assertiveness is what sets her apart. She understands that nursing is not just about science; it's about the heart. It's about being open to new ideas, staying updated with research-based practices, and being willing to say "yes" when unexpected opportunities arise.

"Students will certainly make you think! When my 'desk' work gets to be overwhelming, I stop and go into the treatment room. I find seeing patients re-centers me and reminds me of my purpose," shares Bernstein.

Nursing is emotionally demanding, and Bernstein’s coping strategy lies in connecting with her patients and their families. She guides them through their treatment options and helps them make informed choices. Her belief is that her role is not to cure but to meet her patients where they are and assist them on their path.

Beyond her dedication to nursing, Bernstein emphasizes the importance of a balanced life. She values family, friends, church, books, movies, and rest. She finds solace on her house deck on challenging nights, where she can 'be,' free from the demands of technology.

Bernstein’s career is a testament to her dedication to continuous learning. She remains engaged with professional organizations, stays updated through podcasts and journal articles, and seeks wisdom from those who are more knowledgeable.

Mentorship has played a vital role in her journey with her husband, grandmother, and graduate school advisor, leaving a lasting impact. She believes, however, in the power of camaraderie among her colleagues, the nurses who have shared their time, expertise, and wisdom.

For aspiring nurses, Bernstein has invaluable advice: “Nursing has so many components —understand the pathophysiological issues, cultivate a strong network to make care happen, and grasp how it all fits together. Take courses that make you competitive, broaden your knowledge, attend conferences, and network. Be fierce, be passionate, be an advocate. Be kind."

In the realm of healthcare, obstacles are not unique to Walter Reed. But Bernstein’s perspective is a commitment to being a guide on the road, not a boulder blocking the way. She knows that even in the face of unpopularity, there's nothing better than knowing she's made a difference in a patient's life, no matter how small.

Bernstein, a nurse, a specialist, and an embodiment of compassion, stands as a testament to the power of nursing. Her journey reflects dedication, kindness, and a commitment to making the world a better place, one patient at a time.
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